Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, standing with Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson (AP)
ATLANTA -- APS investigators call the state of Atlanta schools under Dr. Beverly Hall a "disaster." In their first sit down interview, Mike Bowers and Bob Wilson talk about a "heartbreaking" culture of corruption.
It has been a long 10 months for Bowers and Wilson, the special investigators that oversaw the scathing report on Atlanta Public Schools.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta Public Schools CRCT Investigation
Wilson says he lost track of days, sitting in a conference room from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., conducting and pouring over the 2,100 interviews they conducted and 800,000 documents they examined.
Bowers and Wilson have known each other a long time. Wilson was DeKalb County's longtime District Attorney. Bowers was the state Attorney General until the late '90s. After a series of failed investigations and growing evidence of rampant cheating in Atlanta Schools, then-Governor Sonny Perdue asked them to investigate.
What they found from the outset was apparent and astonishing. Third graders couldn't read or write. Sixth grade children, one teacher told them, did not know what a lake was.
Their interviews led them to a quick and clear conclusion: At Atlanta schools, the testing was not about the children. It was about the adults. And, they found, there had been a failure of leadership at the highest levels.
Bowers and Wilson both bill hundreds of dollars an hour in private practice. For this project they charged a fraction, $160 an hour. There would be plenty of hours to come.
An Investigation Begins
They began in Indianapolis, where Wilson and Bowers went to test the test. They met with test administrators to check wrong-to-right erasures, standard deviations, random samples and repeat testing. It was then they knew there were serious problems.
They found large standard deviations and that the schools' results, "stuck out like a sore thumb."
Meanwhile, Richard Hyde, who declined to be interviewed, chose Venetian Hills to see if he could "crack an egg." A former Atlanta Police officer, he soon found his egg exploring one of his old beats. She would become the first person to confess.
"Bob and Richard were talking with a teacher in this very room," Bowers said. "They called me. 'You need to come down here right away.' I asked 'Why are you sitting here? Why are you telling us this?' She told me, 'The good Lord told me yesterday to come in to talk to y'all.' I would not underestimate the religious component in this."
A series of investigations had come before: a district investigation of Deerwood Academy, outside specialists Reeves and Porter's reports, even an external investigation by the Blue Ribbon Commission. But they all proved to be ineffective, tampered with, or anemic.
Bowers said the Blue Ribbon Commission was made of "good people, well meaning people" but said ultimately, they were auditors not investigators who never interviewed a witness, and were hamstrung by too many outside interests. Bowers called the inclusion of school board member Lashondra Butler Burks the "death knell."
"It wasn't because they didn't have subpoena power. It wasn't because they didn't have other tools we had," Bowers said. "They were not structurally set up to get anywhere."
Initially, Bowers and Wilson's team ran into the same problems. They were met with stonewalling. They even caught the district stalling or withholding documents that had been requested or subpoenaed.
But they were endowed with tools previous investigations did not have: subpoenas, the protection of immunity against criminal prosecution, and in one case, employing the use of a confidential informant in exchange for immunity.
Bowers and Wilson paint a graphic picture of teachers and in some cases, administrators with few choices. In hours and hours of testimony, the impetuses to cheat were the same: nearly impossible targets, job security, fear of public humiliation, and to a lesser extent, money.
"There's probably two-to-three times [the number of teachers] from what we named. But we didn't have enough to name everyone," Bowers said.
Wilson blamed Dr. Hall's targets, a program that he said, was designed to increase accountability for a leader he said was focused on data. Teachers, who thought their students could not pass on their own, felt the pressure to cheat and resorted to desperate measures, and created classes of failing students who fell upwards. But as Dr. Hall's targets were met, the benchmarks only rose. And, Wilson argues, the depth of the cheating grew with it.
Teacher after teacher told investigators about Dr. Hall's convocation at the Georgia Dome. Every year, teachers with the highest percentages of students to make their targets sat on the floor and up front. To sit in the balcony was an insult, Wilson said. Everyone wanted to be there on the floor.
The investigators conducted round after round of interviews, interviewing and re-interviewing teachers and administrators. Many were obdurate, surrounded by their lawyers. Finally, they began to crack. Some confessed out of conscience, many out of faith. One man told them he'd confess if he could swear on a Bible. Bowers retrieved his Bible from West Point, and the man confessed. By the report's end, 81 others had as well.
But finding a path to a clear morality, a simple wrong and right, proved to be complex. Both men are fathers. Bowers is a grandfather.
"We were touched by a lot that we saw," Bowers said, recalling a third grade teacher." She cheated. She couldn't tell me how sorry she was. Her children could not read, could not write. She had cheated, but she also spent her day brushing teeth, combing hair. Making sure they had something to eat. I thought my G-d almighty."
"I think there are teachers here who can be rehabilitated, but they're going to have to face that with the PSC (Professional Standards Commission). That's up to someone else," Wilson said.
They would not discuss pending prosecution by District Attorneys in DeKalb, Douglas and Fulton counties, but said they had been in contact with their offices.
"Not a perfect report"
Wilson and Bowers' methods have not escaped criticism. They are quick to deflect criticism from teachers and union leaders over flaws in the report.
Some teachers have denied confessing outright, as in the case of Beverly Shanks who retired after Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis' call for the removal of the 178 implicated staffers.
Their investigators have been accused of strongarm tactics, using threats, old transgressions and more to yield a coveted confession. The investigators called the allegations absurd.
But they stand by their report, which they admit is not perfect, and the dozens of GBI agents and lawyers who researched, assembled and wrote it.
The Dr. Hall Sessions
Wilson and Bowers spent hours with Dr. Hall and her attorneys, what they called "long" days. They described the former superintendent as gracious, polite, patient and charming.
But they concluded in their report that Dr. Hall "knew or should have known" cheating was taking place in her schools.
"The Atlanta Public Schools system under her guidance was a disaster," Bowers said.
Watson: Do you believe she was truthful?
Wilson: That's a hard question. I believe she told the truth as she would like it to be. But not exactly as it really was. And sometimes in a leadership role there are things you don't want to know. Good leaders find out anyway.
Watson: She's denied repeatedly knowing anything about cheating. Is that possibly true in your opinion?
Bowers: I don't think so.
Watson: Do you think Dr. Hall purposely brought in principals who could make targets, period?
Wilson: Well there would be "no exceptions, no excuses." How clear is that to you? It's pretty clear to me.
Watson: Dr. Hall said she was accountable not responsible. What does that mean?
Bowers: To me it doesn't mean a thing. Because if I'm not mistaken, the two are the same. Responsible means accountable and accountable means responsible. Now I'm not an English major, but I think I looked them up in the dictionary.
The two stopped short in their report and in their interview of directly implicating Dr. Hall in cheating and of being responsible for a toxic culture they said fostered the need for cheating in the hallways of her schools. Repeatedly asked what charges she could or should face if any, the investigators, both former prosecutors, declined comment.
Dr. Hall has called herself "accountable as head of the school system" for preventing what was revealed in Bowers and Wilson's report. Hall said she was "disturbed" by the "perceived atmosphere of intimidation and retaliation." But in an interview with 11Alive's Karyn Greer, the retired superintendent denied any knowledge of cheating in her classrooms.
Both men say they were concerned about the role of politics in the investigation. Both were hesitant when then-Gov. Perdue, a Republican approached them. Bowers was worried in particular how it would look, once a Republican candidate for governor himself.
"I felt once [Wilson] got involved, his being a Democrat would neutralize the politics," Bowers said.
Wilson, a self-described "old-line Democrat," and Bowers, a dyed in the wool Republican, poke fun at each other's leanings, but are aware how sensitive the political game surrounding the investigation is, not only when it comes to northside schools and southside schools, but ramifications that echo through the national chambers of education policy. AYP was borne out of the Bush Administration's landmark No Child Left Behind plan.
"This is striking at one of the bedrocks of Republican politics in education: testing and accountability," Bowers said. "You'd better be real careful about it."
Ultimately, both say they believe in the public education system. Both are products of it themselves. Bowers attended Atlanta Public Schools. Wilson went to Decatur City Schools.
Yet the pause is measurable when asked, "Would they send their kids or their grandkids to an Atlanta Public Schools?"
There are places in Atlanta Public Schools I would feel fine for my grandchildren to go to school," Bowers said. "There are some places, no."
"I'd like to think in a not-so distant future those problems will get better," Wilson said.